Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wheat, chaff, and alien abductees

My question today is one that haunts many skeptics -- the question of how one would know if a bizarre claim was actually true, especially in the absence of evidence.

The hardest-nosed of us would probably object to the premises of the question; if there is no evidence, they would say, then there is no basis on which to make a judgment in the first place.  And while I agree with that general attitude -- and have applied it myself on numerous occasions -- it always leaves me with the worry that I'll miss something, and just through the weakness of the evidence and my preconceived notions I won't see the grain of wheat in amongst the chaff.

I riffed on this whole idea in my novel Signal to Noise (and if you'll allow me a moment of shameless self-promotion, it is available as an e-book for Kindle from the link on the right side of the page).  In the story, a skeptical wildlife biologist, who had decided that all woo-woo claims were bullshit, is confronted with something bizarre going on in the mountains of central Oregon -- and has to overcome his preconceived notions even to admit that it might be real.  And in the story, it doesn't help that the news is delivered to him with no hard evidence whatsoever, by a total stranger who just "has a feeling that something is wrong."  (I won't tell you any more about it; you'll just have to read it yourself.  And at the risk of appearing immodest, it rocks.)

The reason I bring all of this up is a website called Little Sticky Legs: Alien Abductee Portraits, owned by Steven Hirsch.  On this website, which you should definitely take a look at, there are photographs of a number of people who claim that they were abducted by, or at least contacted by, aliens, and their first-hand accounts (and in some cases drawings) of their experiences.  I thought this was an unusually good example of the phenomenon I've described above, for a variety of reasons.

First, the accounts are weird, rambling, and disjointed, and many of them seem to have only a loose attachment to reality.  Second, the photos don't help; whether Hirsch deliberately set out to make his subjects look sketchy is a matter of conjecture, but my sense is that he was playing fair and this is the way these people actually look.  And some of them, not to put too fine a point on it, are a little scary.  And third, of course, the content of the accounts is fairly contrary to what most scientists think is realistic.  So, all of these things combined seem to put them squarely into the category of most of the subjects of this blog; bizarre, possibly delusional, nonsense.

But reading the earnest narratives of these supposed contactees left me feeling a little uneasy.  Part of it was a sense that if their stories aren't true, then these people are either lying or else are the victims of hallucinations that could qualify as psychotic breaks.  And although I am rather free about poking fun at people who generate strange ideas, I just don't feel right about including as targets people who have genuine mental illnesses.

My unease, however, had another source, and one that haunts me every time I see something like this; what if one of these stories is actually true?

A person who had been abducted, but was left with no physical trace of the experience, might well describe it in just these terms.  And if the victim was someone who wasn't highly educated, there's no reason to expect that (s)he would remember the details, or explain them afterwards, in the way a trained scientist would.  The general vagueness and lack of clarity is, in fact, exactly what you'd expect if an ordinary person experienced something shockingly outside their worldview.

Now, please don't misunderstand me.  I'm not, in any sense, committing to a belief in alien abductions in general, much less to any specific one of the stories on Hirsch's website.  My hunch is that none of these stories is true, and that whatever these individuals is describing has another source than actual experience.  But it is only a hunch, and an honest skeptic would have to admit that there is no more evidence that these claims are false than there is that they are true.  My only point here is that if one of them was telling the truth, this is much the form I would expect it to take... which means that it behooves all of us, and especially the skeptics, not to discount odd claims without further investigation.  Skeptics tend to rail against the superstitious for jumping to supernatural explanations for completely natural phenomena; we should be equally careful not to jump to prosaic explanations when an odd one might be correct. 

The best thing, of course, is to withhold judgment completely until the facts are in, but that is pretty solidly counter to human nature, and is probably unrealistic as a general approach.  And given the ephemeral nature of some of these claims, the facts may never come in at all.  So all we can do is keep thinking, keep watching and listening and investigating... and not be afraid to push the envelope of our own understanding when the time comes.


  1. The thing that has always puzzled me about the total disdain exhibited by the Science Community when it comes to investigating the Alien Abduction Phenomena is why main-stream science is not investigating it.

    Even if not one of the cases reported turned out to be what the persons who had these experiences thought they were experiencing, I would think that science would want to know why so many people around the world, from so many different cultures, report close encounters and/or abductions. Writing it off as a mass psychosis, as I have seen some in science do, explains nothing. Besides, even if it is a psychosis that is being triggered concurrently in vastly different cultures, then I would think that science would want to know what the trigger is that is causing it, and why now.

    1. Mainstream science is investigating it. How efficiently, well that's up for debate. Think Nasa, CSA, ect. Worldwide there are well over 30 space agencies with there eyes ion the sky. If Aliens do frequent our skies at least one of them would have seen SOMETHING credible.

      Now I'm not suggesting with total certainty that aliens do not exist, just that there is an extreme lack of evidence and large surplus of crazies and attention whores who would readily fake factual evidence.

      I think the more likely reason why it doesn't appear that they investigate things is because most of these cases ARE in fact from crazies and they have pretty efficient ways finding out if a story has grounds quickly.

      NASA gets call about an alien craft above a field in Snowflake, Arizona. NASA checks satellite database for an array of things that I don't understand that indicate what went on over the said field when supposed craft was there.

      Database show nothing wrong, NASA scientist returns to looking at asteroids that look like dinosaurs(political comment? Who knows!)

      Perhaps it is possible that the craft has advanced technology that totally cloaked it from all our data gathering instruments, it just seems unlikely.

    2. Also i read a few of the stories on the site mention int eh original post. IN the process I probably skimmed over all of them to some degree. Anyways as I was reading I began wondering myself,

      "Why would aliens travel vast distances across the galaxies, put us in a semi conscious state only to play with our genitals, with odd interjection, presumably via telepathy, telling us to shut up?"

      I mean if I traveled across the galaxy, and found another intelligent race, I would try communicating with them prior to playing with their genital equivalents.

      Perhaps not all aliens do that, in fact, it may even be possible that there are rogue alien groups, outcasted by the galactic federation for the very reason of travelling the universe in search of new races to molest.